“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.”
Elizabeth Alexander, the poet, ponders a single sentence from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as she talks about his life and work in a recent episode of “On Being,” with Krista Tippett. Note first, she points out, that it’s in iambic pentameter. Du Bois is saying to Shakespeare, look: I can do what you do.
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.
It is a brilliant stroke–Robert Pinsky calls it “a sentence like a symphonic chord”–placed at the coda to Du Bois’ chapter “Of the Training of Black Men.” Implicitly he is responding to Booker T. Washington’s well-known speech of 1895, in which he argued that the surest route to equality for blacks was vocational training that would lead to jobs and economic freedom.
All well and good, Du Bois counters, but to stop there–to limit the pursuit of deeper intellectual challenges–is to deprive blacks of an entitlement. Worse, it could be counterproductive:
[F]or this is certain, no civilization can be built in the South with the Negro as an ignorant, turbulent proletariat. Suppose we seek to remedy this by making them laborers and nothing more: they are not fools, they have tasted the Tree of Life, and they will not cease to think, will not cease attempting to read the riddle of the world.
For Du Bois, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, “the question of the future is how best to keep these millions from brooding over the wrongs of the past and the difficulties of the present.” And indeed for the black American as the color line tightened into a stranglehold, “study and thought and an appeal to the rich experience of the past” would prove essential ballast on the journey to a better future.
In visualizing himself by Shakespeare’s side, Du Bois enacts the same vision of equality that Danielle Allen poses in her reading of the Declaration of Independence.
When the United States asserted itself as a nation “separate and equal” to other world powers, the claim was an equality of status, Allen writes. The United States, though lacking the resources of England, Germany, or France, was asserting equal voice in the world.
Du Bois–whose life looks almost nothing like Shakespeare’s–is Shakespeare’s equal in access to the intellectual capital of the world and to his own reason and imagination. He claims this status for himself and for nine million black Americans, many of whom had been born in slavery.
In a passage that Allen persuasively argues is one sentence and should be read that way, the claim “that all men are created equal” should be drawn out, she says, to encompass the idea “that each human being is the best judge of her own happiness.” We are each one of us “therefore participants in the project of political judgment,” Allen writes–and that “entails considering whether one’s community fares well or ill.”
And the way to ensure that an entire community is faring well, and not ill, is through giving everyone “access to the single most important tool available for securing our happiness: government. This is an idea of equality of opportunity where the opportunity that we all need is access to the tool of government.”
The premise of Du Bois’ argument that blacks need access to all levels of university education, and not just to trade schools, is that as free Americans they are entitled to explore every idea as far as they are willing to follow it. On those terms, they are able to open all the same doors as white Americans, including the door to the courthouse and the state house. This powerful idea has its root in the Declaration of Independence, a document written, as is well known, by men who enslaved others.
That’s just how poetry works.